The Helena National Forest is soliciting public comment for a more than 13,500-acre project in the Crow Creek area of the Elkhorn Mountains it says is aimed at improving wildlife habitat.
The Johnny Crow Habitat Improvement Project located about 10 miles from Townsend would include prescribed burning along with noncommercial cutting and slash burning of small trees. The work will reduce the encroachment of conifers into traditional grasslands, increasing tree-age diversity and promoting forage for wildlife, according to Forest Service documents.
The project came in part through the work of the Elkhorn Restoration Committee, which in 2013 recommended the Forest Service perform restoration projects in the area, said Townsend District Ranger Corey Lewellen.
“Our hope is to have a decision signed by this winter, and if all goes well, start next field season,” he said. “We’re excited about it and working with our partners on the Elkhorn Restoration Committee, and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is all in that this is a pretty good project.”
The Elkhorns are unique as the only designated wildlife management unit in the Forest Service, cooperatively managed with FWP and the Bureau of Land Management. All projects in the Elkhorns must focus on the sustainability and improvement of wildlife and habitat.
Wildfire historically maintained a higher diversity of tree age classes, but fire suppression has significantly increased the period between fires. According to documents citing a 2005 Forest Service study, grasslands in the Elkhorns historically burned every 16 years on average, with a present interval of 251 years.
Another focus of the project is thinning trees and using prescribed fire at higher elevations, which officials believe will benefit whitebark pine, a species important for wildlife but hit hard by disease and insects in recent years.
The project-area includes work in about 6,000 acres within the Elkhorns' 75,000-acre inventoried roadless area, but plans call for no roads to be built, Lewellen said.
Executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies Mike Garrity was critical of the project, saying it is dishonest for not addressing cattle grazing’s impacts on wildlife forage. The trees the Forest Service proposes removing are valuable hiding cover for wildlife, and the Elkhorns are supposed to be managed for wildlife and not livestock, he said.
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“Sara Johnson (executive director of the Native Ecosystems Council) and I have looked at the aspen in the Elkhorns, and cattle grazing has devastated the aspen stands,” he said. “The Elkhorns is one of the best hunting areas in the country. If there is a shortage of forage for elk then they should look at reducing the number of cattle, not hiding cover for big game.”
Lewellen said the project is only focused on wildlife, and that much of the work is outside of active cattle grazing allotments. Some of the grasslands and sagebrush habitat that are in active allotments will be rested as work is occurring, he said.
Garrity further criticized the Forest Service’s research into wildfire intervals, pointing in part to University of Wyoming research challenging the findings that historic fires were as frequent as the Forest Service claims.
“This is a make-work project for federal bureaucrats. It is not a project that will benefit wildlife,” he said.
John Gatchell, conservation director for the Montana Wilderness Association, believes the project can both benefit wildlife and maintain the values associated with roadless areas.
“I think they’re on the right track with this project,” he said. “I think certainly hunters recognize fire’s an important part of habitat and important for elk, and we see this as the right kind of approach.”
One factor that makes the Elkhorns unique is the amount of big game winter range located on public land, Gatchell said. Reducing conifer encroachment into parks using prescribed fire takes an ecological approach that will not harm wildlands, he said.
Prescribed fire allows managers some control over how and when a fire burns, and prescribed fire has even been used within wilderness areas successfully and without damaging wilderness resources, Gatchell said. As long as additional roads are not involved, MWA does not have an issue with tree thinning or burning in the roadless areas to improve habitat, he said.
“We’re so lucky to have a unique place like the Elkhorns with so much history for people especially in our area, and a special emphasis on wildlife,” he said.